The Year’s Most Controversial Magazine Covers: 2014

What did we learn from the controversial magazine covers this year? It was an complicated and tumultuous year politically, although this year that didn’t leave us with boundary-pushing, banned-in-Boston covers like Rolling Stone‘s notorious Boston bomber selfie. We had a lot of conversations about famous women on magazine covers and what it all meant. The themes that keep cropping up, repeatedly, is that controversy comes when issues of class, race, and size are in the picture. Here are some of the covers we couldn’t stop talking about this year.

Why are people so weirdly proprietary over American Vogue, the brand? Is it because Anna Wintour is the terrifying headmistress at the fashion boarding school of life, wearing Prada devilishly, rendering us all into cowering Anne Hathaways in cerulean, “the funny fat girl,” as a result? Whatever it is, when Lena Dunham was on the cover for February’s issue (in close-up, like everyone not a size two; looking great, as well), that was sullying the brand, according to some detractors, and then Jezebel made it worse (and gross) by demanding $10,000 for the “unretouched originals.” When they were put up on the site a week later, the evidence mostly revealed that, hey, Vogue pretty much let Lena be Lena.

Then, two months later, again! The Vogue brand sullied with “downmarket” Kim Kardashian on the cover, Kanye behind her. This controversy was just mostly hilarious, as it was rumored that Wintour was like “Kim is just not Vogue” but her good friend Kanye was begging her and it finally happened. Despite having the #worldsmosttalkedaboutcouple on the cover, sales were pretty much at par, or even less than usual — hardly the blockbuster expected. Which is why in November, Wintour was obliquely shading the choice, saying: “I think if we just remain deeply tasteful and just put deeply tasteful people on the cover, it would be a rather boring magazine! Nobody would talk about us.”

Remember when bell hooks was quoted as calling Beyonce a terrorist? It was due to this cover. But that’s a simplified version: in a New School discussion with activists including Janet Mock, hooks feels that a part of Beyonce is a terrorist as she participates, fully, in visual media as part of the agreed-upon beauty standard in television and videos, impacting young women today. The Beygency got mad, but before you judge/hate — and come on, bell hooks is essential — the whole discussion is worth catching on video.

When TIME released its most influential people issue, it was a point of contention that activist and actress Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black wasn’t included, and readers made their frustrations clear to the magazine. A month later, Cox was looking gorgeous on the iconic cover as the first transgender person on TIME. It was part of a package that presented a wide presentation of transgender issues in the mainstream media, and it may go down as representing “the transgender tipping point,” as they put it. It has certainly been an extraordinary year for transgender representation, visibility, and issues in the media.

Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder does not have the sort of lithe, sinewy athlete’s body that makes the ESPN Body Issue a sort of prurient leer-fest. Ergo, Twitter made some jokes, even though he looks great and he looks strong. It’s an amazing cover.

In a good year for naked people on the cover of Rolling Stone (hey Neil Patrick Harris), fifty-something Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a cheeky baller, showing her backside and the U.S. Constitution on the cover. Well. Cue the harrumphs: is that “good” for women in comedy? And is the U.S. Constitution actually technically inaccurate on the cover? At least it’s not this nightmare material, also from this year:

Remember Planet Hillary? Remember when The New York Times Magazine went totally Teletubbies meme-core to write about a leading presidential candidate who also happens to be a woman? It was weird! It was a trip… to the moon, right? Would they do that for a male candidate? Maybe they should start!

You know what? It’s about once a year that we all get mad at ELLE Magazine for putting an amazing actress who dares to be above a size two and/or not white on the cover, and it boils down to the fact that when the bulk of lady magazines put an actress whose body or ethnicity doesn’t serve the status quo of actresses, they then always always draw attention to their “other” status with a close-up or a big ol’ jacket. What’s interesting is that this argument keeps coming around, whether the actress is an Oscar winner (Octavia Spencer) or a comedy juggernaut and arguably the biggest star in the country (Melissa McCarthy) or the star, creator, writer and show-runner of her very own sitcom (Mindy Kaling).

The valid point of the internet outrage spurred on by the February ELLE 2014 black-and-white close-up of Kaling (one out of four different cover stars; the other three got full body shots in color) drew attention to the fact that she was different; but it’s hard for these conversations to also sound condescending towards these talented women, who look hot and are starting to break barriers on magazine covers, for a start. It was kind of crazy that Mindy Kaling had to write about it on her Twitter feed. Maybe we can start this conversation the next time around with with Mindy Kaling looks hot on her cover, and maybe next time, ELLE, she can be in color and I can see the whole outfit? I’m always trolling Worn on TV for The Mindy Project anyways…

This cover is great! Bloomberg Businessweek have some of the best covers in the game…

Uh, and then this cover is silly.

For a magazine that has the same cover model on the cover every month, sometimes O Magazine pushes the boundaries with sheer magnificent glamour. And sometimes it’s just Oprah and a (quel horreur!) photoshopped-in-after-the-fact lion.

Oprah as lion-tamer: I want to believe.

In this year of time being a flat circle, we end where we began: Kim Kardashian broke the internet. She inspired pearl-clutching horror from people shocked that a mother would ever pose like that, and then she was allegedly complicit in racist imagery, and she was pure camp while doing so. There were headlines like “Kim Kardashian’s Butt Is an Empty Promise.” We talked about Paper Magazine like it was 1987 and maybe they even sold some newsstand copies. Most of all, we realized that Kim Kardashian is America, and to reckon with her is to reckon with our past, present, and future.